WHAT IS TELEVISION TODAY?
AN AUDIENCE RESEARCH ON HOW VIEWERS PERCEIVE AND EXPERIENCE TELEVISION
IN THE CONVERGENCE ERA
Giulia Negri (13603795)
Completed on June 18, 2022 Supervisor: Jan Teurlings Second reader: Maarten Reesink
Word count: 19,574 words
MA Television and Cross-Media Culture University of Amsterdam
I would like to thank my thesis supervisor Jan Teurlings for the attention and care he demonstrated while guiding me through the writing of this thesis. I am especially thankful
for the time he took to discuss each detail of my work with me, always explaining the reasons behind his corrections and redirections and being open to listen to my viewpoint.
Thank you to my second reader Maarten Reesink, as well.
I wish I could express my appreciation to my parents for supporting my studies and my career in every possible way, as I know not many graduates are lucky enough to be able
to say the same. You did not only gave me the life I am living, but the chance to live any life I want to.
Thank you to my long-time Italian friends that have somehow managed to make their presence felt everyday even from another country and to the new ones I met along the way, especially all my fellow media students: it has been refreshing to finally meet people
with whom I was able to share this passion of mine.
Finally, I want to extend my special thanks to everyone who took part in this research by allowing me to interview them or even just by discussing their television-related opinions
with me whenever my thesis topic would come up during a conversation, usually generating extremely interesting and enriching exchanges of ideas.
This thesis aims to discover what television is in the contemporary period, after the advent of on-demand, streaming platforms such as Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu etc. and the media convergence phenomenon. All these introductions in fact significantly disrupted the media landscape, spreading confusion on what television is and what it is not.
Because of its mutable nature, the audiovisual medium has always had blurred boundaries and only been talked about in relation with the time being, instead of in absolute terms, by its own scholars and field professionals. Not being able to find a timeless, trustworthy description of television in the relevant theory or literature, I decided to assess this task from an opposite perspective, thus investigating how television is consumed and perceived by its own users (viewers) through an audience research. I therefore interviewed 12 more or less assiduous television spectators about their media- related opinions and behaviours in order to determine what kind of impact the switch from old to new forms of television has had on them and their daily habits. Successively, I gathered information about whether and how they associate television with the device now that the medium’s essence is not constrained in the fixed tv set anymore, and related all the collected insights through a generational comparison, when necessary to highlight the substantial changes television is undergoing during the Convergence Era.
Keywords: Audience - Consumption - Contemporary - Content - Convergence - Devices Entertainment - Generations - Interrupted tv - Interviews - Linear television - Media environment - Medium - Netflix - On demand - Programs - Representation - Ritualistic tv - Screen - Society - Streaming platforms - Technological development - Television - Television experience - Television perception - Time - Time-bound - Timeless - Transformation - Transnationalization - Tv series - Tv set - Viewers
Table of contents:
Introduction - What do you think television is?
Chapter 1 - What television has been Chapter 2 - The appeal of streaming platforms
2.1 The new television as a source of entertainment (only) 2.2 The perceived impact of the new television Chapter 3 - On defining TV: TV as device versus TV as content Chapter 4 - Modes of use of the old and new television Conclusion - The timeless and time-bound medium Bibliography Web sources Interviews transcripts
1 2 13 17 22 27 31 43 44 47 47
What do you think television is?
When viewers talk about television, they draw from their own experience, which leads to extremely disparate - sometimes incompatible - assumptions. They all seem to be able to picture in their heads, and consequently express, only a corner of the television world, without ever be exhaustive enough to effectively portray it in its entirety. In film studies, the question “What is cinema?” has been asked and investigated extensively (for instance, the interrogative is the very title of Andrė Bazin’s popular book), but the same cannot be said about television - at least not until now. But after the multiple consequences of technological and infrastructural developments, such as convergence, on demand and streaming services, revolutionised the media ecology as people used to know it, television’s appearance and modes of use have changed so much that its viewers now struggle to recognise it. Which leads to the necessity of asking ourselves: “What is television, today?”. Such realisation is where I draw the inspiration for this thesis’ title, and what made me realise the necessity to look for an answer through the means of “an audience research on how viewers perceive and experience television in the Convergence Era”, as expressed by the subtitle. Why should I only ask myself, or intellectuals, or tv experts, when I could ask to everybody? What I personally find the most fascinating about television is in fact the reciprocity of the influence it exerts on society: as we will see, the latter shapes television, which shapes society, which shapes television and so on and so forth in a never ending cycle. Even those citizens who do not watch it are inevitably influenced by it, in virtue of the fact that they live in a public sphere mostly made of people who do watch it. Meaning that although common citizens, who sometimes do not even watch television regularly, might not be educated in media theory and will provide mere opinions instead or universal truths (assuming there is such a thing as a true definition of tv), their perceptions and experiences of the televisual medium will be true for them.
Hence, each individual personal experience of television has to be considered a tassel, which contributes to build the big puzzle of the medium’s essence, as perceived by its audience. There being countless examples of television consumption experiences, there exist just as many possible personal perspectives I would have to look into. Furthermore, from the original interrogative, What is television today?, follow on a number of derivative questions: do people perceive that television provides high or low quality products? Do they consider it democratic or totalitarian? Do they experience it collectively or individually? Questions that television students face multiple times during their academic career, whereas common viewers (or at lest my interviewees) do not necessarily dwell on.
Instead, they implicitly answer them through their spontaneous consumption choices, without even realising it - during my research I have heard them beginning their answers with “Good question, I never actually gave it a thought, but now that I think about it…”
Nevertheless, as pointed out by David Morley a long time ago, people’s opinions are
“both limited by, and indexical of, the cultural and linguistic frames of reference which respondents have available to them, through which to articulate their responses” (Morley, 1989, page 24), meaning that viewers do not live in a vacuum, but in a society, and we will see how their experiences are moulded by the discourses that circulate in that same society. That is what will provide me the fil rouge to connect together my interviews.
Additionally, as Mark Deuze points out:
I think it is important for media studies not to see people as hapless victims of this seemingly fragmented worldview, nor to assume that this shift towards a media life inevitably makes people’s experience of society somehow less ‘real’ or ‘true’. The potential power of people to shape their lives and identities can be found in the assumption that people produce themselves (and therefore each other) in media.
This perhaps may additionally explain why people do not recognize their media habits because they are a constitutive part of them (Deuze, 2011, page 138).
Television and media in general are therefore silent protagonists of people’s daily life, so much so they tend to forget about tv’s subtle but permeating presence and overlook its influence on them, especially since the introduction of new technological functions that make them feel more in control of the medium’s flow and activity. That is exactly why it is now more important than ever to be able to identify what television is and what it is not, in order to be aware of the effects its new forms have on both individual viewers and society.
CHAPTER 1 AND METHODOLOGY What television has been
When people think about tv, they really only think about a small portion of the ever- changing and constantly expanding world that television is. As William Uricchio points out in his Constructing television (2013), “the history of television is a history of change” (page 65). This observation is enough to undermine the purposes of my thesis, as it makes it fall in a relativist spiral which would require every single concept in the thesis to be based on an implicit premise: that it is virtually impossible to give a universal, fixed in time definition of television. Media literature has proven that the only way to do so - to define television - is “historically”, meaning in relation with the historical period.
Looking back with historical hindsight, we can underscore the highly contingent nature of television as a technology and array of practices, and in the process relativize our definitional conceits and reframe some of our theoretical assumptions.
(Uricchio, 2013, page 74)
A brief summary of television evolutions in history will help us seeing where today’s tv comes from. In The Television Will Be Revolutionized (2007), Amanda Lotz describes the
substantial changes that television as a medium has undergone during the past 20 years in terms of technological advances, industrial practices, business norms, and audience uses. More precisely, she splits television history in three distinct eras: the “network era”, the “multi-channel transition” and finally the “post-network era”. During the first one (from 1952 to the mid 1980s), television was the result of the adaptation of radio-network content creation, distribution, advertising, and audience measurement practices to the context of the new medium. As a cultural institution - if not even a “public sphere” - it reached a vast and heterogeneous audience to which offered a shared experience of contents. Since then, the audiovisual medium never stopped transforming in its functionalities, mechanics, offering, in the way it is perceived and influences the mass audience: during the “multi- channel era”(from the mid 1980’s until the mid 2000’s) from having only a few generalist channels and specific distinction between public and commercial systems, television turned to branded broadcasters and multiplied its offering, along with the average number of tv sets present in each house. To this shift largely contributed the confluence of the VCR, the remote control, as well as an assortment of cable broadcast technologies and practices. The audience became fragmented, but globalized. The identity of television was still strictly dependent on technology, and targeted channels turned into an electronic private space: people started to watch what they wanted by themselves, instead of generalist programs for the whole family. The storytelling became more complex. With the post-network or digital era (mid 2000s until today), recording devices, digital broadcasting, video aggregators and portable devices made their entrance in the media ecology, leading to a new kind of audio visual content, on-demand, streaming platforms and really active audiences (not only viewers but also creators of contents and programme schedules). Lotz believes that video self-publishing tends to function as a self-determined gated community, where “self-created television becomes a way of viewers to communicate with established peers, creating specialized viewing communities.” In a nutshell, the post-network television era is characterised by what she calls “the Five Cs”: choice, control, convenience, customization and community, which combine to allow contemporary viewers to achieve their preferred television experience.
Scholars have frequently defined television by its medium specificity, enhancing therefore the differences with other mediums; for instance, King Adkins (2018, page 22) addresses tv’s liveliness element in comparison with cinema. Yet, it goes unsaid that a criterium based on external factors rather than on the medium object itself mutates according to shifts in media ecology. Today, such variable parameters would be especially inapplicable, as we are living a transitionary moment: our habits as media consumers are transforming quickly following the current infrastructural, devices and technological changes.
I write at a moment of accelerated change, a moment when in many nations, analogue broadcasting has officially ended, giving way to digital-only television. The change mandates modifications in the receiving apparatus, and offers the promise of
not only ‘more’ but more interactive programming and services. It is a moment accompanied by new display technologies (flatscreen, PDAs, high definition),
‘intelligent’ interfaces (programmable DVR systems), and cross-platform production and viewing practices. […] It is a moment of confusion, as much for viewers, who seem to have difficulties distinguishing among these new practices, as for the medium’s industries, themselves in a state of flux, seeking to secure their market positions and to catch the ‘next big thing’. (Uricchio, 2013, page 65)
In fact, Judith Keilbach and Markus Stauff corroborate such argument:
Today, as profound changes are still taking place, scholars refrain from determining television’s future form, focusing instead on the process of its transformation. The features of contemporary television simply seem to undermine a coherent definition of the medium, which seems too complex, too heterogeneous, in constant flux.
Today, many critics proclaim the end of (the classical form of) television and speak of multiple transformations leading to a new era – be it “the phase that comes after TV” (Spigel, 2004: 2), the “Post-Network Era” (Lotz, 2009), the “Post-Broadcast Era”
(Turner and Tay, 2009), or “New Television” (Moran, 2010). (Keilbach and Stauff, 2013, page 79).
Regardless of the name we settle on, it is particularly interesting to map out how the perception of television is shifting and how the Era of Convergence, as I chose to refer to the mediatic period we are living in this thesis, is affecting our relationship with it. Indeed,
“convergence" is, in my opinion, the most conceptually comprehensive phenomenon I can use to indicate the plethora of revolutions and new players which characterise the contemporary media industry - thus the television one, as well. According to Henry Jenkins (2006), in Media, the term “convergence” refers to the “flow of content across multiple media platform, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (page 2). The most common example of media convergence are smartphones and tablets, which blend together print media (e-books, news apps, …), broadcast media (streaming websites, radio, music apps, …) and new media (Internet) into a single instrument. It follows that nowadays people can consume television from a variety of devices other than the good old black boxes, which however can still be found sitting comfortably in most people’s living rooms. Nevertheless, the concept of convergence is not by any means limited to smartphones and tablets, as Jenkins reminds us:
This circulation of media content - across different media systems, competing media economies, and national borders - depends heavily on consumers' active
participation. I will argue here against the idea that convergence should be understood primarily as a technological process bringing together multiple media functions within the same devices. Instead, convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content (Jenkins, 2006, page 3).
This consideration is especially important for the purpose of my research, as it stresses the social implications of the convergence phenomenon and thus the impact it has on viewers’ daily behaviours, which is the reason why I believe that television is, at least in this specific time period, better investigated by looking at its audience rather than at its
“creators”, meaning the media scholars and professionals behind it. Since scholars themselves couldn’t give a fixed description of it - or hid behind the excuse of the medium’s unseizable transformist nature - the logic conclusion is indeed that an answer has to be found through the analysis of the object in use, meaning from its users’ point of view; to which follows the choice of digging deep in this investigation through the means of an audience research.
As more clearly explained by Horace Newcomb (1983):
Because television critics, certainly in American journalistic situations, are more alike than different in many ways, a more important indicator of the range of responses is that found among “ordinary" viewers, or the disagreements implied by audience acceptance and enthusiasm for program material soundly disavowed by professional critics. Work by Himmleweit in England and Neuman in America indicates that individual viewers do function as "critics," do make important distinctions, and are able, under certain circumstances, to articulate the bases for their judgments. […]
The pattern is not new to television. It has occurred with every other mass medium in modern industrial society. (Newcomb, 1983, page 568)
Tracing the steps Audience Research professor Joke Hermes carried out in the writing of her Reading women’s magazines (1995), I have applied her same methodological accounts primarily based on interviews - in my case, to more or less assiduous television viewers. Being a great advocate of Glaser and Strauss’ “grounded theorising” approach (1967), Hermes largely uses the latter in her work, as it defends the idea that “qualitative research has a merit over quantitative research when it comes to theoretically understanding social phenomena as opposed to merely testing existing theory by trying to falsify it” (page 177), thus claiming that qualitative research is better when the goal is to understand how people experience reality. Grounded theory consists in consecutive stages of information gathering and comparison of the findings to the existing theory starting from a broad spectrum of data sampled on theoretical grounds and then progressively narrowing the focus. My open research questions (what is television for you?
How do you use it? How do you perceive and describe it?) will therefore be sharpened until a satisfactory empirical answer to what viewers think television is in the Convergence Era is found. “This leads to new theoretical assumptions that can be put to the test with small new samples, until a theory can be formulated” (page 177).
I preferred interviews over surveys and other quicker - but more rigid - data collection methods, as the firsts’ qualitative character allows the interviewer (in this case, me) to see the respondents' reactions to the questions, and the interviewees to develop their explanations through free flows of conscience. It is in fact easier to get their real opinions by listening to their sometimes imprecise, messy, redundant reasonings than by reading a concise answer that goes straight to the point. Paradoxically, the latter is much easier to misinterpret, as surveys pre-construct the answers; moreover, close questions and short answers do not allow people to think out loud and build on their first, instinctive thoughts, remaining mere drafts of their true opinions, seeds of potentially much more widely ramified discourses. Naturally, all interviews have been carried out in the respect of the respondents’ physical and mental health, along with their privacy. All gathered personal information has been voluntarily disclosed by them or altered (for instance, I have used pseudonyms instead of their real names). They have all been informed that their interview was being recorded through the regular iPhone voice memos app to be later transcribed on pages with the aid of the voice dictation tool. As far as what kind of people I chose for my audience research, I aimed to variety in as many aspects as possible: my interviewees were extremely heterogeneous in age (from 21 to 86 years old), nationalities (Dutch, Italian, British, American and Belgian viewers), media habits, social classes, political beliefs, work fields and lifestyles. Note moreover that among my 12 interviewees there are two married couples: Simon and Eva, who I have interviewed on separate occasions and who have given me the chance to highlight how the same consumption experience, even when shared with each other, can be perceived in such disparate ways, and Cesare and Giulietta, my oldest respondents, who felt more comfortable answering together, creating a small focus group.
My goal was to obtain a very general but complete overview of they television consumption experience and perception of the audiovisual medium, through 31 open question designed to touch a wide range of disparate topics about people’s media-related habits; in this sense, there was no such a thing as a wrong answer, but simply personal opinions. The questions are loosely divided in sections: whether or not the interviewee considers themselves a television viewer, their relationship with streaming platforms, their consumption preferences and tastes, whether or not their media experience is shared with friends and family, short “biographies of use” (how their television consumption habits have developed and mutated throughout the years) and some personal opinions about the television industry and medium (“Is tv progressive or conservative?”, “Is it top-down or bottom-up?”, …). In order to give my interviewees space to further develop their
reasonings, I have kept a flexible approach, frequently adapting to where the conversation led instead of forcing them to answer to all my queries in the predefined order.
It will therefore be a thesis largely based on people’s subjective opinions, and the fact that they can experience and describe television in the most disparate ways. As Hermes points out quoting Morley’s comment on his own research practice (in The Nationwide Audience: structure and decoding, 1980 and Family television: cultural power and domestic leisure, 1986):
[…] in the absence of any significant element of participant observation of actual behaviour beyond the interview situation, I am left only with the stories that respondents chose to tell me. These stories are, however, themselves both limited by, and indexical of, the cultural and linguistic frames of reference which respondents have available to them, through which to articulate their responses. […] I may well, of course, lie to you or otherwise misrepresent my thoughts or feelings, for any number of purposes, but at least, through my verbal responses, you will begin to get some access to the kind of language, the criteria of distinction and the types of categorisations, through which I construct my (conscious) world. (Hermes, 1995, page 178)
Moreover, I do not fear a bit of controversy when I say that television scholars’
teachings are arguably not always more important nor relevant than common viewers’
opinions: the way people approach and use television make television what it is, regardless of what media theorists and professionals set it up to be.
After “having acquired sufficient material and overview”, I moved on to the writing of the second chapter, which aims to answer to the original question by investigating the appeal of platform tv, thus what are the triggering factors which contribute to the audience mass migration from old to new forms of television - according to the viewers themselves. For this purpose, the second chapter is split in 2 subtitles aimed to describe, in order, the new television characteristic of being (only) a source of entertainment and the perceived impact of the medium. Successively, in the third chapter, I dug deeper in some insights which had come out from the interviews, in order to shed light on whether viewers still associate television with the tv set and how they perceive the television content now that it is not strictly connected to the tangible device anymore. Finally, in the fourth and last chapter, I focused on my interviewees’ biographies of television consumption, along with how they have changed (or not) throughout the years - either because of specific respondents’ life conditions or because television itself developed technology-wise, thus lending itself to be experienced in unprecedented ways.
But before all that, in this opening chapter I intend to look into some of the preliminary considerations that in my opinion should be made clear before starting to dig into the results of our audience research. It is in fact crucial to approach the answers of interviewees, who most likely have never throughly thought about their relationship with
television, under the light of literature from media studies, sociology and cultural studies.
That can provide informed insights on how television messages are manufactured and received, how viewers form their own opinion about them and what social mechanisms are involved in such processes, allowing us for deeper understanding of what is hidden behind the interviews’ outputs, along with a more educated execution of said interviews’ analysis.
First and foremost, Stuart Hall (1997) can help us unravel a critical aspect to take into account during the research, namely what lies at the basis of the creation of spectators’
perceptions and experiences of television: in his book about representation, he introduces the concept of ‘shared meanings’, to illustrate the way members of a society collectively follow the same interpretative path when it comes to decode and give meaning to the same text, precisely because they are part of the same social frame where such “cultural codes” circulate. “The emphasis on cultural practices is important. It is participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects and events. But “things 'in themselves’ rarely if ever have one single, fixed and unchanging meaning” (page 3).
Meaning is constantly being produced and exchanged in every personal and social interaction in which we take part. […] It is also produced in a variety of different media; especially, these days, in the modem mass media, the means of global communication, by complex technologies, which circulate meanings between different cultures on a scale and with a speed hitherto unknown in history. (This is the focus of Du Gay, ed., 1997.) Meaning is also produced whenever we express ourselves in, make use of, consume or appropriate cultural 'things'; that is, when we incorporate them in different ways into the everyday rituals and practices of daily life and in this way give them value or significance. Or when we weave narratives, stories - and fantasies - around them. (This is the focus of Mackay, ed., 1997.) (Hall, 1997, page 3)
In short, regardless of whether television sets out to be realistic or not, it always engages in a process of representation. What we call “reality” does not exist outside said process; this does not mean that there is no real material world, but simply that the “real”
material world - the society we live in - has to be given meaning for us to understand, and consequently engage with and within it; and television, when integrated in its viewers’
daily life, naturally becomes an encoder of meanings. Hall’s famous representation theory makes the argument that “representation is not about whether the media reflects or distorts reality, as this implies that there can be one ‘true’ meaning, but the many meanings a representation can generate” (Jhally, 1997). This basic notion is the underlying knowledge that must be clear in the back of our mind as I approach every interviewees’
statement, especially as they will be telling their own truth and I will have no choice but to accept it as it comes, biased or not. Moreover, people’s opinions about television might not only be affected by the media itself, but also by the society they live in and the silent
mechanisms which regulate it. In this sense, since my goal is to find the multiplicities of meanings generated through television, I must necessarily try to sample those meanings as they circulate in society, indeed.
John Fiske (1986) points out that unconscious dynamics of media understanding often require the exploration of different interpretative factors people deal with when they encounter various forms of mass media, ranging from agency to polysemy. He believes that media contain an excess of meaning within them that does not fit the dominant interpretation, leading to a highly desirable interpretation openness for the mass market media. Said interpretative factors come from the agency of audiences constructing meaning, the patterns of interpretation that shape them and the social context of interpretation: indeed, media are part of their own consumers’ social life, who engage (or at least can engage) with media in social settings.
Newcomb (1983) also resorts to Stuart Hall’s influential theories about encoding and decoding processes to introduce three basic modes of interpretation: “dominant”, when it is coherent with the prevailing ideological structure, ”oppositional”, when it rejects the basic aspects of the structure and “negotiated”, when it positions itself somewhere in the middle between the first two interpretation modes. “Clearly, however”, clarifies Newcomb,
“communication is dependent on a greater degree of shared meanings, and expressions of popular entertainment are perhaps even more dependent on the shared level than many other forms of discourse” (page 568).
Naturally, shared meanings circulate everywhere, but differ in substance within each society or slice of that same society; that is to say that they apply in each specific way only to specific areas, often for a limited time-period, and consequently to a precise audience.
In fact, television is in continuous expansion and development, consequently endorsing new, ever-changing opinions about equally new, ever-changing controversies. Nowadays, we moreover notice that a considerable amount of television content with whom many spectators identify their television consumption is a trans media concept, meaning that it is not connected to a specific medium as it can be translated on a large number of different media; this makes it even harder for today’s viewers to intuitively grasp television’s essence and formulate their own idea of it. The principal transformability of the constellation of elements (institutions, technologies, ways of experience) “promises the usefulness of television for many different applications and different practices. However, the specific requirements to each different practice do not only incite the constant transformation of television, but they also initiate a constant reflection on its uses and characteristics” observe Keilbach ad Stauff (2013, page 90).
The reason behind this relentless transformation is that the representation activities carried out by television turn the medium into a mirror of the contemporary society, which is always undergoing (more or less gradual) processes of renewal. As we will see, most of
my respondents’ television consumption revolves around sitcoms and tv series. The latter are what comes up first when they think about the medium, what they usually look for when they sit in front of their screens and what they most frequently mention as examples for their reasoning during my interviews. Why? Think for instance of how many tv series and sitcoms have historically represented issues specific of their years in their area of origin. The concept of Zeitgeist (literally, the “spirit of the time”) is that all these series could be broadcasted 10 years before or after when they were aired, but it is because they were broadcasted in the specific time in which the themes portrayed were an hot topic that they were successful. In Television as a Cultural Forum, Newcomb mentions some particularly exemplificative tv series, which efficiently mirrored the contemporary society:
[…] Most television shows do change over time. Stanley Cavell has recently suggested that this serial nature of television is perhaps its defining characteristic. By contrast we see that feature only as a primary aspect of the rhetoric of television, one that shifts meaning and shades ideology as series develop. […] Shows such as The Waltons shifted in content and meaning because they represented shifts in historical time. As the series moved out of the period of the Great Depression, through World War II, and into the postwar period, its tone and emphasis shifted too. […] In M*A*S*H we are caught in an anti-war rhetoric that cannot end a war. A truly radical alternative, a desertion or an insurrection, would end the series. But it would also end the "discussion" of this issue. We remain trapped, like American culture in its historical reality, with a dream and the rhetoric of peace and with a bitter experience that denies them. (Newcomb, 1983, page 566)
Raymond Williams calls that spirit of the time “structure of feelings”:
The most difficult thing to get hold of, in studying any past period, is this felt sense of the quality of life at a particular place and time: a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living. […] The term I would suggest to describe it is ‘structure of feeling’. It is as firm and definite as structure' suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible parts of pur activity.
In one sense, this structure of feeling is the culture of a period: it is the particular living result of all the elements in the general organization. […] I do not mean that the structure of feeling, any more than the social character, is possessed in the same way by the many individuals in the community. But I think it is a very deep and very wide possession, in all actual communities, precisely because it is on it that communication depends. […] There is the lived culture of a particular time and place, only fully accessible to those living in that time and place. There is the recorded culture, of every kind, from art to the most everyday facts; the culture of a period.
There is also, as the factor connecting lived culture and period cultures, the culture of the selective tradition. (Williams, 1961, page 52)
As a mass media and a form of communication, which addresses audiences living in specific times and places, television constitutes a very effective channel for the structures of feelings, as it generates content in line with the hot-topics circulating in society at any given moment. Nevertheless, this does not exclude that it transforms them through mechanisms like polarization, darantization and simplification; in a nutshell, representation processes. Because they are produced step by step during the contemporary times, serialized media have a strong relation with the Zeitgeist. Television itself is especially relevant as it is broadcasted every single second of the day (compared for example to newspaper, that are published at best once a day), although it nowadays has to keep up with extremely fast-paced new media such as social networks. Moreover, because tv is audiovisual, it can afford a depiction of the Zeitgeist through visual means and on more levels than the radio.
Together with the medium and its representations of the spirit of the time, the audiences’
ways of engaging with media contents changed, too. In a paper that revolves around the viewers’ opinions, we cannot overlook the historical developments of those who sit in front of the screen(s), and the fact that the history of television is deeply interwoven with the history of its spectators. As most aspects of people’s life, viewers’ attitudes and approaches towards media content in general has been drastically changed by the advent of the Web 2.0:
By comparison to the highly choreographed cultural production system of the industrial information economy, the emergence of a new folk culture and of a wider practice of active personal engagement in the telling and retelling of basic cultural themes and emerging concerns and attachments offers new avenues for freedom. It makes culture more participatory, and renders it more legible to all its inhabitants.
(Benkler, 2006, page 314)
The so-called user-generated content is now essential to the success of social media platforms, as “the activities it encompasses include not only content creation, but also editing, annotation, commenting, repurposing, and redistribution” (Bennett and Strange, 2011, page 316). Again, this validates the necessity to conduct the present research for a definition through an audience investigation, as the public has now turned into not only the receiver, but the proponent itself of the media industry. As stated by Deuze:
Considering the pervasive and ubiquitous nature of media and the signaled uncanny capacity of contemporary media to connect and isolate at the same time – to make the world concurrently larger and smaller – it becomes crucial for a 21st-century media studies to engage directly with people’s experience of reality as lived in media.
(Deuze, 2011, page 142)
By approaching the reconfiguration of producer-consumer relationships through the lens of the productive media consumer, in fact, Jenkins (2006) examines fan and game cultures and finds them “neither entirely autonomous of the mass media and cultural industries nor
passively dependent on or absorbed into them” (page 317). He demonstrates that these fields of cultural practice “reconfigure the relations between production and consumption, industries and audiences, as well as old and new media” (Jenkins, 2006, page 317), in an additional example or convergence culture. The media use activities that laid the foundations for user-contributed television content come from long traditions of personal media consumption and audience practice. When people started sharing short video clips drawn primarily from television news, it became apparent that participation in YouTube was a “logical and newly visible extension of ordinary television audience practices - akin to saying ‘Wow, did you see that?’ or ‘I love this show/video/joke’“ writes Bennett (2011). “The prevalence of these clips and quotes points us toward thinking about how media content is used, rather than how it is received” (page 321).
This is especially important since “an orientation toward use rather than production asks us to see the up-loading, commenting, redistribution, and repurposing of online video as constituting the communicative practices of cultural citizenship” (page 323). In fact, according to Hermes, “partaking of the text-related practices of reading, consuming, celebrating, and criticizing offered in the realm of (popular) culture” are the means through which cultural citizenship is built, in an additional confirmation of television and society’s relationship of reciprocity (2006, page 323). But as the Internet becomes a mass medium,
‘interactivity’ gets watered down until it “looks like no interactivity at all with almost all the audience” reports Bennett from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008). For him, “the system that results starts to look suspiciously like TV, where ‘interactive TV’ is an oxymoron reduced to voting in talent shows. The closing down of interactivity via fame in turn challenges some of the understandings of community and the collaborative nature of participatory culture” (page 336).
The status of contemporary programs, for instance on-demand content, means that they will mostly be watched on handheld devices, such as laptop and smartphones. These recently introduced ways of use that do not only involve the eyes, but the hands, as well, have radically transformed the medium-spectator relationship:
As viewers lean forward into the screen or hold it up close to see the de-tails of stories or expressions, a greater sense of intimacy is therefore created between viewer and host. […] When you watch on your iPod or your laptop, it’s only inches away or you’re holding it in your hands. I wonder whether the intimacy of our handheld devices and computers creates more of a sense of intimacy and sharedness and companionship than just sitting back and watching TV” (Bennett and Strange, 2011, page 343).
Notice that in this quote, the “sense of intimacy and sharedness” has not to be intended among spectators and/or users who make use of the medium together, but instead among the single user and the device itself.
To summarise with Bennet’s (2011) own words, in analyzing the shifts television underwent in time and its transformative tendencies that increasingly seem to lead to “the promise of heightened interactivity, whether by media conglomerates or co-users, we must always be acutely aware of the architectures of participation that structure the shape of that participation, interaction, and community” (page 353). Manuel Castells articulates in this sense the rise of a new form of socialized communication:
We are indeed in a new communication realm, and ultimately in a new medium, whose backbone is made of computer networks, whose language is digital, and whose senders are globally distributed and globally interactive. True, the medium, even a medium as revolutionary as this one, does not determine the content and effect of its messages. But it makes possible the unlimited diversity and the largely autonomous origin of most of the communication flows that construct, and reconstruct every second the global and local production of meaning in the public mind. (Castells, 2007, page 248)
Having explained the reasons why it might be challenging to discuss the television medium in this specific time-frame and the main elements that characterise it (convergence, on demand and streaming services), we are now ready to investigate the specific object of our research - meaning my interviewees’ personal answers - with a greater amount of knowledge, but also with the awareness that, ultimately, television is nothing definable, fixed or permanent.
The appeal of streaming platforms
After the convergence phenomenon took hold and, more recently, the handiness of new forms of television overshadowed the affordances of traditional tv, masses of consumers have shifted to on-demand and streaming services. It is fundamental to clarify from the very beginning that the latters and convergence are not to be confused, nor are in any way connected. As Cathrine Johnson explains, there is in fact a clear distinction between what she calls “Online TV” (cable tv through online means) and streaming services. According to her, with the advent of internet, television faced a bifurcation: on one hand, the television path went on, although less and less bound to the device, which led to the asynchronous access to the television content library, along with the definitive decentralization of the TV set in favour of a plethora of devices to access the same service. On the other hand, a completely new line of services developed, namely streaming platforms, which are on demand online entertainment source for TV shows, movies and other streaming media. The concept of convergence I have already extensively talked about and that of streaming services are therefore two separate
elements, which however both irreversibly revolutionised the media environment; hence, they both constitute two protagonists of the contemporary discourse on television as a medium that lies at the basis of this thesis.
Viewers have adapted to the evolving technological environment by adopting new consumption practices and forcing the same media infrastructures which began the television revolution to adjust in return to those unprecedented modes of use, in a sort of vicious cycle. My interviews unveiled that a mix of personal reasons and technological developments caused substantial changes in the respondents’ perception and experience of the audiovisual medium, making them particularly appreciative of the perks of streaming services (remember Lotz’s Five Cs: choice, control, convenience, customization and community) at the expenses of linear television. As far as on-demand linear tv services, they are seen as the middle ground between traditional and streaming tv, as explained by Eva:
Eva: […] with Netflix I can make a distinction from television, while Streams and television are really close to each other for me; with Streams you can also watch shows that have been broadcasted on national television at a latest stage.
Interviewer: You don’t consider Netflix as television though, right? Because you said it’s further from television than Streams is.
Eva: I see a distinction. Because Netflix has a lot of movies and shows, but on Streams you have Flemish shows, that are broadcast on television.
Here, Eva seem to define television by its institutional origin. Moreover, notice that that many of the shows on Netflix have been previously broadcast on tv, as well, but respondents do not necessarily know, basing their distinctions on inaccurate beliefs.
Simon also chooses a compromise between traditional television and the new time- shifting ways to experience it:
Simon: I’m part of the generation that was conditioned to watch TV from the television set, but now I do not watch it in the moment when the program is broadcasted. For example when the news are broadcasted at 10 in the evening, I might watch them at 11. [My italics]
Such confusion in distinguishing what television is from what it is not finds its origins in the media industry’s infrastructures evolution in the direction of devices’ multiplication and size shrinkage. That made the latters suitable for a variety of different, unprecedented tasks:
nowadays we can do almost anything with our smartphones and laptops, from video calling our friends to managing our bank accounts. But the more the devices got smaller
and scattered all around us, the hardest it became to recognise - or even see - television.
As Deuze points out:
As media become pervasive and ubiquitous, forming the building blocks for our constant remix of the categories of everyday life (the public and the private, the local and the global, the individual and the collective), they become invisible […] we become blind to that which shapes our lives the most (Deuze, 2011, page 137).
These new forms of television’s “shaping effects” are stronger than ever precisely because viewers, feeling in charge, tend to overlook them. Indeed, the advent of portable devices allowed people to watch whatever they wanted from the palms of their hands, free of the constrictions of pre-established television’s schedules. Additionally, they became able to not only watch what they wanted, but also where and when they wanted to watch it, ultimately giving spectators the impression to be in control of the media (at least more than they used to be).
Sarah: My shift from consuming linear television to almost exclusively watching streaming platforms is due to the convenience of Netflix, Amazon Prime, … We have all these subscriptions that allow us to watch whatever we want and we can pause, we can rewind, we can go forward without the disturbance of commercials every 5 minutes that are now even longer than the actual programs [My italics].
Such new opportunities made linear television’s offering look unsatisfying - or at least not customisable enough to be tailored to what each viewer personally considers
Sarah: […] nowadays, with television, you may have one hour of something you are interested in and then one hour of something you are not interested in.
Interviewer: So you also think it depends on the offering that is provided?
Sarah: Yes, definitely. I mean, if television had like three hours of CSI, I am sure I would watch that, but if it is something that I have already seen before or a TV show like the Big Brother, which I am really not interested in, then I won’t watch it. As well as on Saturday night, you know, they give the option of watching two or three different films that I have probably already seen before; then I prefer to look through Netflix and choose something from there.
It is unlikely that in the future linear television will be able to develop a service that would perfectly suit every single of its spectators, as it would have to replicate the exact same systems that make streaming platforms “shape-shift” in accordance to each user’s tastes, basically turning into a streaming platform itself and ultimately erasing the
traditional linear television service as we know it. In a sense, however, this is actually happening, at least in the eyes of those viewers who do not separate the concept of the television from the device: in fact, some of my interviewees consider the good old black box in their living rooms as “just another screen” to watch streaming platforms (or even online content). “My husband and I watch the television that we have here at home- I would say maybe once or twice a month. We don’t use our television often. If we use the television is to hook up the computer so we can stream something from internet”, confirmed Sarah [my italics]. “For me, watching television means switching it on to go look for a movie on Netflix”, said Greta, clearly revealing an unconscious connection between television and the device.
Each of my interviewees listed a series of different reasons why they might prefer or simply enjoy watching streaming platforms’ content. But regardless of whether they favour traditional or new forms of television, one thing is sure: all of them, with the exception of Cesare and Giulietta (a couple of 80+ years olders), consume much more streaming services than traditional tv. Some even admitted to watch the same exact programs they would once watch on linear channels on streaming platforms, because of the technological advantages they provide, such as no interruptions and the possibility to pause, fast forward or resume.
Michelle: So, the programs I watch on streaming platforms are House Hunters, Selling Sunset [laughs]. Uhm… My Dream Home Makeover, Hell’s Kitchen…
Interviewer: But those are tv programs, do you watch them from streaming platforms?
Michelle: Yes, usually either on Netflix or Hulu. [My italics]
Indeed, one of the elements that contributed to move mass of viewers closer to streaming platforms is that they do not seem to be able to stand commercials anymore:
Eva: I also notice that sometimes when I watch a movie on linear tv and there are commercials I go see if it is on Netflix without commercials.
Sarah: I guess streaming platforms are more “consumer-friendly”, as far as public television goes, because you have the freedom of choosing what you want and you are not bombarded with commercials. Every time I turn on the television, I watch commercials for maybe 20 minutes and then I have the program which lasts five minutes… [My italics].
Moreover, most lament the repetitively of traditional tv networks’ offering as far as entertainment, with its frequent re-runs, in comparison with the constant pumping out of new (but less qualitatively valuable) streaming platforms releases. Marge engages in fact
in a “decline of platforms” rhetoric, which actually does not fit with the rest of the opinions collected: “I would hypothesise that it (streaming platforms’ offering) has been decreasing in quality because they are pumping stuff out so much faster than before” [my italics].
Everyone else, however, does not comment on streaming services’ qualitative level, as they simply claim to crave regular releases of new content, as platforms certainly provide:
Sarah: the free television- I would say that’s conservative because there are so many re-runs, films that I ever seen for years…
Giulietta: Some programs on television are more modern, but most are always the same. I don’t know, for example quizzes are always the same thing.
Greta: There are formats that stay identical for years and years. I believe that even a successful program must be aired for maximum 3 seasons, because at the 4th one it becomes repetitive. For example programs like Domenica In, Verissimo are all formats that we have already seen too many times… You can be curious about a quizz once, but then you cannot go on watching the same quizz for six months… Not to talk about The Big Brother, I watched the first season when it was still an innovative concept, but then I stopped for good.
Eva: I think that on tv you see a lot of things you have already seen in other shows, and they are repeated with little differences, but they are still the same concept. So, at one moment in time, those concepts must have been an innovation, but then they get repeated so many times… [My italics]
Therefore, according to my respondents, the appeal of streaming platforms in comparison to linear TV lies in their flexible, entertaining and innovative content, as long as the lack of annoying interruptions (which I will further discuss in chapter 4).
2.1 The new television as a source of entertainment (only)
Judging from my interviews, due to the multiplication of information sources, more and more people consume television exclusively for entertainment purposes, as they can resort to the Internet for any information they need.
Sarah: […] when we connect to the television is to watch a show. When we were consuming a lot of television, I would say two years ago, we were watching it mostly at night, two or three episodes of CSI which are like 45 minutes long… And then of course you sometimes have it as background noise when you are cooking or
cleaning you just listen to the news, but with everything going on, it is a bit depressing to listen to the news…
Interviewer: So basically you only watch entertainment on television?
Sarah: Yes, only that.
Interviewer: So now you only use television and streaming platforms for entertainment and not education?
Because streaming services provide only entertainment, among the different television forms (but not among media in general) informative and educational content has become an exclusive of traditional tv, and consequently its defining element. It is worth mentioning that some (few) viewers are still susceptible to the linear tv’s institutional aura:
Marge: […] because it (the newscast) is a traditional form of informing yourself it feels a bit more… Like, if I were to stick to watch these kinds of things three times a week at night, I would be way more informed than I am by picking out my own information, even though I depend on reliable news sources and I have news apps and everything. I just feel like this is a side of tv that would make me feel like “Uhm, maybe I do want to watch live tv, after all”. [My italics]
However, viewers like Marge are becoming increasingly rare, as the demand for informative programs is declining in favour of entertainment, which is today more convenient to consume on streaming services. The totality of my interviewees claimed in fact that they watch tv more for entertainment than for information purposes, if we do not consider documentaries as a form of information. That is also due to a widespread distrust towards linear television as an informative service and their so-called agendas:
Ilaria: With the news, I always consider that they are delivered subjectively. I don’t know how to explain, but newsmakers are human too, and of course the light under which they explain the facts depends on the news channel they work for. [My italics]
Sarah: My personal opinion: I think that a lot of money goes into certain channels and I think that the more money are put into it, depending on who is putting the money in, is going to make it more biased and show more of “what they want you to see”. I know that, especially in the United States, we have a lot of channels funded by political parties and so you definitely get a one-sided view of the things that they
portray. I feel that I have a little bit more freedom on social media or simply on the Internet, so that is where I go when I need to research in order to construct my own opinion.
Simon: the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine have been explained, but a lot of the information you get is always seen from a single viewpoint. People in Russia are convinced that there is not even a war and that what is happening in Ukraine is good, while we are 100% sure that it is a war and it is not good. So it is always difficult to be 100% sure about the information you get. It is very complicated to form an opinion about the vision that is proposed by television - or whatever media. So it is always a good characteristics for a program, whether it is fiction or documentary, to show different nuances; but television is not the media of nuances, it has to be quick and short, so it is far easier to say “this is black and this is white”, rather than to show all the nuances of grey.
Interviewer: What did you mean when you were saying that “they” decide what to show on tv? Were you referring to the news, their choice on what to talk about…?
Cesare: Yes. Most news are rubbish, as they say.
Cesare: They want you to believe certain things, especially now with the war issue…
A newscast will tell you something and another one will say the opposite… Some even say than we won’t have anymore gas and oil in a month, all factories will be shut down, we won’t have anymore heating and so on.
Giulietta: The same story is told in two different ways depending on wether you watch Channel 3 or Channel 5.
Cesare: So one does not know who they should listen to, and they loose trust towards both newscasts and both channels, because each has its own interests.
This scepticism towards television might seem to go against international research that shows that traditional tv networks are generally more trusted than other sources.
Nevertheless, statistics fluctuate a lot from country to country: according to Katerina Eva Matsa’s article (2018) for the Pew Research Center, northern europeans like Simon are indeed attached to their newscasts broadcasters. Notice however that his answer’s scope is a little bit broader than the others’, as he is not really commenting on television in particular, but rather on media in general. On the other hand, Italians like Ilaria, Cesare and Giulietta are more divided on the issue: the majority (65%) of the television viewers in Italy trust their news media, but the percentage is much lower than in most other countries.
Europe’s positive trend is in strong contrast with the United States, where, coherently with Sarah’s considerations, “the largest public news outlets, NPR and PBS, rank far lower than many of the country’s private news outlets”. Furthermore, the fact that some respondents like Simon have included media in general in their answers does not exclude that they are reluctant to blindly trust linear tv informative services.
Viewers’ preference for entertainment programs is furthermore reflected in a shortening of viewers’ attention span, who seem to prefer a sort of “all you can eat” media- consumption formula rather than being served a substantial (but still finite) meal, mostly because the first overall feels “like a better investment”:
Interviewer: Do you prefer television or movies, and why?
Ilaria: I would say my opinion has changed during the years, because I used to like movies a lot more but… This is probably pandemic-related, but my attention span has shorten so even if the time I spend watching a tv show is the same as the time I would spend watching a movie, with a movie my attention is going to lower.
Eva: […] it is nice to have a long period to be entertained for.
Interviewer: Why do you like it? Why do you like the fact that it is long and you know that you will have to make a commitment for a long time?
Eva: I also like long books. Yes, I like to be part of a universe that takes you along for a longer time; sometimes when I watch something short, I feel sorry that is already finished. [My italics]
Marge: Films are too much commitment, you have to pay too much attention, and I don’t like getting invested in something and then it being over.
Interviewer: Okay, but then why do you like- I mean, tv series are also a very big commitment, even for a longer time.
Marge: Yes, but I feel like the commitment is worth it because I get more out of it (the content, the story), whereas the movie, I can enjoy it but then it’s over and…
Interviewer: Yes, you are left with nothing pretty soon.
Marge: Yes. [My italics]
Ian: Movies are more sporadic. But- currently I am not watching any series, because I finished everything that I was watching, but I prefer series because, you know, you can binge watch… They lead up to something more.
Interviewer: Because they are longer?
Ian: Yes, but individually the episodes are shorter, so they are easier to consume.
Therefore, viewers do not simply demand for entertainment, but for endless entertainment. Convergence has probably a role in this phenomenon, as well, since it got viewers used to get a taste of their favourite dishes here and there, from a variety of different screens and services. As a result, they now expect to be able to get bites of content everywhere and at all times, feeling deprived when movies or one-time tv programs simply finish leaving them with no chance to re-taste the story. What they expect nowadays is an all inclusive, on demand, never ending media banquet such as streaming platforms catalogues, which they can access any time from everywhere. On the other hand, spectators have lost appreciation for the excitement going to the restaurant brings:
the anticipation during the previous days, the feeling of sitting down with friends or family to enjoy a professionally prepared service together, the extraordinariness of such event - which might become a regular appointment in the following weeks, but cannot ever be resumed and relived exactly the same twice. Watching traditional television, with its programming that “gets to an end”, as Paolo defines it, can create a more unique, awaited and thus memorable experience than streaming tv. However, it just seems to be too slow, complex and refined for what most people are looking for nowadays.
Paolo is the only one, among all my interviewees, who appreciates this latter type of media formats more than serialised ones:
Paolo: Uhm… I prefer movies, generally speaking, even if we like some series very much. Series are good because, you know, they have 50 minutes long episodes so you can better define how much time you want to watch television for. So that is good because if it’s late I watch just one episode, if it is not I watch a couple.
Interviewer: But then why do you prefer movies?
Paolo: Uhm… Because I like to follow a story that get to an end.
Interviewer: Okay. You are the first person who tells me that!
In conclusion, in 2022, people watch television almost exclusively for entertainment purposes, also due to the multiplication of quicker and constantly accessible online news sources, as long as a widespread scepticism towards television newscasts and informative programs. Moreover, the respondents report a shortening of their attention span that made them more appreciative of serialised content, which can consumed for a longer time and in smaller bites than movies. Indeed, viewers today want endless entertainment, at any time, in any place.
2.2 The perceived impact of the new television
But what kind of impact does this “new television”, mainly consisting of easily accessible and customisable entertainment, have today? According to Marge, it is the power of starting and spreading trends, ideas and ideals.
Marge: an example would be that I have a neighbour, who is from Greece and he is very conservative, very traditional and he used to be- he was not homophobic but he wasn't very open, he didn’t know much about the topic. But he has been watching shows that are very inclusive, lgbtq+ friendly and I can see that over the years… I can definitely say that they completely changed him, for sure they made him more openminded. It must have been it because they were the only exposure he had to that topic, so I think that things like that can definitely normalise things on tv, which in turn can normalise things for people in real life, too.
Interviewer: Has it ever happened to you? I mean, not this exact same thing, but maybe after watching something you realised you were thinking or behaving in a new way because of that?
Marge: No, not really… I guess that if it had worked well, I wouldn’t have noticed. But I think for me, when people kept saying ‘It’s important to have representation’, I used to think ‘Okay’, but not really believing them - but now, thinking back at it… I’m not white, and growing up in Germany most people on television didn’t look like me, and I’ve never seen it as a negative thing but then I remember that back in the days I was watching a Disney Channel show with Zendaya and I remember being so subconsciously excited that there was someone like me on tv… and not being white wasn’t part of her character, and that for me- I think back at it a lot, because at the time I did not realise that actually this is so important, it just gave me confidence. [My italics]
All interviewees agree that television - especially streaming tv - is becoming extremely proactive when it comes to address and normalise nudity, representation, mental health, homosexuality and other social themes, coherently with the new issues raised by the younger generations. Ilaria, for instance, mentions the topics of drug abuse among teenagers and the modern fashion to live fluid, “unlabelled” romantic relationships, as they are represented in contemporary Tv series:
Ilaria: For example Euphoria, when I watched it I was like… ‘I don’t personally relate to it, but I’ve heard a lot of stories like this’. Also Normal People, I remember watching that tv show and it was very… I was very surprised to see that kind of representation of modern relationships in a tv show.
Interviewer: Why in particular?